Controlled randomness, Kai Jensen

Shebang: Collected Poems 1980-2000 
David Howard
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
ISBN 1877228591

I associate volumes of Collected Poems with poetic fame –  long sequence of small books, most now out of print, requiring a full collection to satisfy the demands of readers. Shebang collects only two volumes, In the First Place (1991) and Holding Company (1995); and the last 60 pages contain previously uncollected work. So this is a collected poems with, from my viewpoint, a somewhat tenuous rationale. Wouldn’t it have been better just to issue a new collection comprising the poems in the last third – many of which are very good – and wait a decade or two longer for the big book?

That said, Shebang does offer a good deal to interest and stimulate. Many New Zealand poets are struggling to reconcile postmodern fragmentation of narrative with the need to produce work that is readable and even personal. Howard makes a solid contribution to this collective project. From the earliest poems onwards, he has been stringing together phrase and image in often surprising combinations. In “The voices that get up”, we read:

The tree never sleeps.
It wants a dark sun
to cover its raw body.
Meanwhile, the horizon
retreats.  Sometimes

a flower becomes
a lover’s arm.  A tree
doesn’t need to be anything
else.

 

Although a tree may not need to be anything else, one feels that in Howard’s writing it easily could be; in fact, almost anything can happen at any moment, as he develops and adjusts a mood through a series of experiments with image, with language. He is less interested in poems that depict experience: experience is to be mined for images that will construct a good poem. This is a change from our traditional models of poetry, where experience by and large remained the subject, however refracted.

Among the poems from Holding Company, one of the best is “Rue Grehan, Akaroa”, which includes these lines:

The wave
breaks its back
on the rock I cannot

reach:  there you are
my reckless one, figuring
out the horizon
you will navigate beyond

tomorrow.  No, you are not there.  I guess
it’s true.

 

The double reversal of “No, you are not there” and then “I guess / it’s true” is quite an achievement of improvisation.

Shebang shows this ability to improvise, to produce a coherent sequence of surprises, strengthening over time. The best pieces in the “new work” section, entitled “Touch & Go”, are remarkable for their controlled randomness. To demonstrate, here is a longer passage from “The Perpetual Bird”:

 The shadow of your shoulders bears
down on the small of your back

yard, where light borers the woodpile
and bees are the air’s surfeit – their rhetoric

directed towards the flowers on the border
where all dialects are foreign and familiar

simultaneously.  If I put my hand in yours – but why
would I put my hand in yours?  Years ago

our bed was covered with the sky’s debris:
birds collected scraps and stuffed the pillows

our heads could never rest on.  Whispering,
our subjects were pitiful and we had no pity –

God no!  If we hesitated it was only to go
on with flowers in our arms

like relicts on a drizzling Sunday
visit to the cemetery we nearly always missed

the turning for.  The prevailing wind was the closest
we came to an angel …

 

There are a few minor false notes here (“borers” coined as a verb is too much, and the extended image of the bees’ rhetoric and the flowers’ dialect is rather tired), yet as a whole the passage has an onward-plunging energy, the swerves to new images are deft, and there are inspired phrases: “bees are the air’s surfeit” and “The prevailing wind was the closest / we came to an angel”. This sequence (except for section 7) and a number of other pieces in the third part of Shebang are very fine: the last section of “The parent branch”, “To Cavafy”, “For Derek Jarman”, sections 1 and 2 of “Cherry”, “The lovers”, “Escaped prisoners”, “Complete with instructions”.

In the two earlier sections, the proportion of work I warm to is lower: only a handful of poems from In the First Place, ten or so from Holding Company.  Howard is clearly excited about what has been – in the New Zealand context – a relatively experimental method of composition. He and/or his editors don’t seem to have realised, however, that experimentation isn’t enough by itself: the results must be interesting. Too many poems and parts of sequences fail to attain a level of energy, of vividness that makes them a pleasure to read – while some, even in “Touch & Go”, are banal or silly. Consider the second part of the two-part sequence “A sign”, which is about concentration camps:

What was once wheat on the threshing floor becomes
the Dear Departed – Die Meistersinger who drank
themselves

under the summer.  No piece of ass matters now
they have their square of earth.  The inscription

on this stone on this stone on this stone is illegible
forever.  Hallelujah.

 

The Holocaust is a terribly difficult topic, but, still, I find this ending an abject failure. I’m afraid there are a lot of poems in Shebang where Howard seems confident that he is sweeping the reader along with him, but I remain unmoved. One problem is portentous endings, a sudden big statement about life or mortality at the end of a poem that is too flimsy a structure to support it: for instance, the corpse that suddenly appears in the second-to-last line of “Snapshot”, or the ending of “Heartwood”:

This is the chair your body grew
into. This is the body
electric.

 

Is it? This sudden big gesture is tacked on to a poem that was mainly about a chair.

With the portentousness, I class Howard’s over-fondness for rare or difficult words, such as the “milar hills” in “Pointing the bone” or the snowflake’s “crenate edge” in “Fascicle” – or the title “Fascicle” itself. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of poets – and I fear it is mainly male poets who are prone to this – use big or difficult words to impress rather than in a more organic way. There’s a difference between this and Michele Leggott’s love of the music in unusual words.

To my taste there’s another, more serious gender-related flaw in these poems, and this is their rather sleazy attitude to women. In his assembling of fragments, Howard often picks up and fondles parts of women’s bodies. “Dropping”, for instance, opens: “my bones in the light / your breasts shed”. Although the rest of the poem is very good, it can’t recover from this breast-headlight image. “You say it’s your birthday, Well it’s my birthday too” includes, in its jumble of fragments, the line: “the real McCoy curling your belly”; a few pages later we read of  “the nickname of your lover / the colour of her pubic hair” (“Before the messenger”).

There’s something very adolescent about this sexuality, its desire to display trophies of sexual conquest: “pearl / her tits with come” enjoins the poet in “Shebang”. Although the title of that poem, and thus the book, comes from the phrase “the whole shebang”, in isolation it sounds like one more sexual reference: “she needs to be fucked” is the gloss provided by another poem (“Hear say”). To my ear, Howard is tone-deaf – or just plain deaf – when it comes to sexuality: his volume is almost always too high, too harsh, and it damages many of the poems.

Shebang features engravings by Jason Greig, figures and small scenes that are shadowy or blurred, surreal, ominous yet also whimsical. They suit the poetry well. The production values of the book are sound, though the cover design is rather too loud, and the heavy bold poem titles a bit much. Overall, Shebang is excellent value at its price, and makes me look forward to seeing where Howard’s poetic development takes him next.

 

Kai Jensen is a Hamilton poet and the author of Whole Men (1996).

 

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